An individual exhibiting such uniqueness or individuality that he or she will cause a roomful of bar cronies to exclaim, "That's one interesting motherfucker!" Actual sexual relations with one's mother are not required.
Unattractive white males make the best character actors. If it weren't for the doting affection of Martin Scorcese, Robert Deniro wouldn't be who he is today. Up until "American Beauty" and the ensuing ego implosion that followed, Kevin Spacey was a phenomenal bit player. William H. Macey, who can act in his sleep, is a terrific thespian. The last great actors who frittered about in the periphery of motion pictures would have to be Jonathan Pryce ("Brazil," "Pirates Of The Caribbean") or Tim Curry ("Legend," "Clue," "Rocky Horror Picture Show"). Don Cheadle will most likely be next, given time. There is a certain freedom to the roles they play because they are exempt from the trappings of marquee stardom. They avoid (either voluntarily or otherwise) being typecast, so they are free to sharpen their talents.
And what of Philip Seymour Hoffman? Hailing from the outskirts of Fairport, NY and born on July 23rd, 1967, Hoffman has been a major influence in the last ten years of film without registering as so much as a cosmic blip on the western conscience. While not attracting major box office dollars, Hoffman livens up the films he chooses. Rather than stealing anyone else's thunder, he fills in the blanks with humility and grace.
In "Scent Of A Woman" (1992), Hoffman barely held the screen for fifteen minutes out of the two and a half hour vehicle for Al Pacino's moving tirade at the end. It was an unremarkable performance, but to Hoffman's credit, it wasn't exactly a rich and satisfying role. He played a college asshead in the midst of a school scandal who did his best to corrupt the doe-eyed innocent that Chris O'Donnel played. Has anyone seen Chris O'Donnel lately? I didn't think so. Hoffman's still around, and unlike O'Donnel, escaped the Joel Schumacher curse, which isn't to say that he didn't work with him. Deniro and Hoffman teamed up in the unbelievably homosexual "Flawless" (1999), one of Schumacher's most honest efforts about a cop (Deniro) who recovers from a stroke by learning to play the piano from a drag queen living in a neighboring apartment (Hoffman). "Flawless" was harmless, and took in a decent amount of money as a special interest film with a big budget while giving Hoffman more screen time than his last five movies combined. Though I can never forgive Joel Schumacher for single-handedly ruining the Batman franchise in two fell swoops, I can forgive Hoffman for picking up a steady paycheck.
Deniro is the penultimate muse for Scorcese, Hoffman is a mainstay in
the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, the biggest risk taker and ensemble
director since Robert Altman. There isn't a film made by P.T. Anderson
that Hoffman hasn't appeared in, so they must have a comfortable dynamic.
Hoffman's portrayal of the gay grip Scotty J. in "Boogie Nights" (1997)
provided some much-needed comic relief during the weightier moments in
the two and a half hour epic about the evolution of the porn from the
seventies to the early eighties. While Mark Wahlberg was certainly the
star of the show (and Burt Reynolds the token Oscar nod for casting),
Hoffman's character made his mark as a dumpy loser who wanted a piece
of the limelight as well as a piece of Dirk Diggler. Critically lauded,
the film comes off as the "Goodfellas" of pornography. Hoffman's big
scene-stealing moment occurred during the New Year's bash at the turn
of the decade, where he obsesses on Wahlberg and shows off the paint job
he gave to his car in the hopes of gaining approval from his hero while
zooming in for a botched make out session.
"Magnolia" (1999), Anderson's next epic, was a bit muddier and more confusing. Clocking in at three and a half hours, it wasn't sure what it wanted to be or how many messages it wished to juggle. Keeping company with heavy hitters and industry pretty boys alike, Hoffman held his own. (With a cast like Jason Robards, Tom Cruise and William H. Macy, that's high praise.) Between raining frogs, Exodus scripture, bedside vigils and deathbed scenarios, Hoffman popped in and out of the scenery like parsley as Robard's hospice aide. (This wasn't the last time Hoffman wore hospital whites as he shared screen time with Robin Williams in the shitty Oscar vehicle known as "Patch Adams." Between shying away from research and my disgust for the two or three years that Robin Williams took every script that showed up on his doorstep, I refused to watch it again for the sake of this critique.)
Continuing on with Anderson's movies, Hoffman had a turn as a true villain in the short and tremendously well done "Punch Drunk Love" (2002). In a breakout role that shocked anyone who saw the movie, Adam Sandler plays an emotional cripple who finds his soul mate. Hoffman plays Dean Trumbell, a rogue who runs a phone sex scam out of his mattress store. It's a powerful, twisted movie, and repeated viewings are liable to give one a mild crush for Emily Watson, who's too mousy for words. But I digress.
Hoffman and Watson shared credits on another film most people have heard of by the name of "Red Dragon" (2002), the last (although chronologically the first) Hannibal Lecter film directed by Brett Rhatner, who let loose "Rush Hour" and other ambulatory pieces of shit into the world. Surprisingly, it's the best installment of the three movies though Edward Norton is painfully miscast as a veteran federal agent because he still looks like he's 22 years old. Hoffman plays a seedy reporter for a disreputable tabloid who gets in deeper than he cares to with the Lecter legacy when sociopath Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Feinees) kidnaps, tortures, and generally scares the bejesus out of him.
A few years prior to "Hannibal" Hoffman played Lester Bangs, in Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous" (2000), a movie that made the critics collectively wet their pants hot on the heels of "Jerry Maguire." It's a tremendously personal movie for Crowe, who spent most of the '80s writing for Rolling Stone. He chronicles his childhood ascension into the ranks of rock criticism, as well as his first foray into the world of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Hoffman plays the father figure he never had, a seasoned journalist for Creem magazine who schools him on the perils and pitfalls of music journalism. As a writer, the film is like rock candy for the eyes.
In Anthony Minghella's "Talented Mr.Ripley" (1999), Hoffman's role is short and sweet as Dickie Greenleaf's over-privilaged eurotrash pal Freddie Miles. I'd be surprised, if he's in the movie more than fifteen minutes, but his character is one of the catalysts that sets Matt Damon's Tom Ripley off into a psychotic rage. Hoffman's performance is charming, understated and pompous in equal but subtle turns.
Hoffman's twisted role as Allen in the brilliantly disturbing "Happiness" (1998) sticks with the viewer. Todd Solondz's holy trinity of dysfunction following the lives of three sisters in New Jersey and everyone they affect is a rollercoaster of neuroses with Hoffman at the heart of it all. He plays a dumpy, socially retarded single man with a desire for rough sex and no means to find it, obsessed with a neighbor at his apartment complex (Lara Flynn Boyle). At the onset of the film, he makes dirty phone calls to the object of his affection. Surprisingly, the girl ends up inviting him over to live out his fantasies. Once they meet up, it's obvious that nothing will come of it, and Hoffman, in the end, winds up with a wildebeest of a woman who thinks the world of him, closing one more triangle of need and desperation.
The bandwagon was a bit slow on the uptake when it came to the Coen brothers' masterful "Big Lebowski" (1998), the first film they'd released hot on the heels of the Oscar-dandy known as "Fargo" (1997). Since it's video release, Big Lebowski has turned into something of a cult phenomenon, much like all of the Coen brothers' movies. More caricature than character, Hoffman's portrayal of the Big Lebowski's trusty assistant Brandt borrowed liberally from the Simpson's Mr.Smithers, if you ask me. Stodgy, anal retentive and loyal to a fault, he carries out his master's dirty work efficiently in this reworking of the Dashiell Hammet formula through the guise of a shiftless pothead played to perfection by Jeff Bridges.
There are a handful of other film credits Hoffman has appeared in, but these are the ones that spring to mind and leave a lasting impression. He was also comical in the massive ensemble effort "State and Main" (2000), one of writer/director/Hollywood legend David Mamet's recent attempts behind the camera. It's a parable about the corruption and depravity of tinseltown, and a road that's been traveled a million times. In addition to this, it's one of four recent films where he's tried desperately to convince the world that his wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, not only knows how to act, but does a good job of it at the same time. But that's neither here nor there.
What's next on the slate for Hoffman? A biopic about Truman Capote, the author who milked a twenty year career out of writing "In Cold Blood." No other writer in recent history has ridden a publicity junket for so long. Between Capote's flamboyant homosexuality and his lifelong friendship to Andy Warhol and associated New York bohemians, it should make for an interesting picture.
Character actors seem to be a dying breed. It's a testament to Philip Seymour Hoffman's versatility that he's held so many powerful roles and worked with the best writers and directors in modern cinema. Rather than settling into a stereotype or a character mold like the Pacinos, Deniros, and Robin Williamses of the world, he's shrugged off each identity like a second skin and moved on to the next film. If you list the best bit actors in the field, you can tally them all on one hand. Jonathan Pryce, Tim Curry, Don Cheadle, Christopher Lee, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. For a stocky redhead with a devious looking face, he gets around.
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